Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Larger-Than-Life Facts About Texas

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

The Lone Star State boasts some the best barbeque and biggest farmlands and ranches in the United States. Since the 19th century, it has been home to presidents, movie stars, musicians, folk heroes, and famed outlaws. Here are 25 facts from deep in the heart of Texas. 

1. Texas is the second largest state [PDF]. With an area of 268,602 square miles, it's bordered by four other states, and by Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico in the South. Alaska, meanwhile, is the largest, at 663,000 square miles.

2. The word “Texas” comes from teysha, which means “friends” or “allies” in the language of the natives of East Texas. The word was used by several tribes, including the Hasinais and Caddo, before the arrival of the Spanish, and was sometimes used as a greeting. 

3. The so-called Lone Star State gets its nickname from the state flag. The lone star first appeared on the Republic of Texas’s flag in 1838. 


4. The state capital was almost named Waterloo. When a commission surveyed the land in 1838, they named the territory after the famed battle. But the Republic of Texas’s congress ended up renaming the city Austin to honor founding father Stephen F. Austin. 

5. 7-Eleven got its start in Dallas in 1927 when a Southland Ice Company employee started selling eggs, milk, and bread out of one of Dallas’s ice houses. Southland founding director Joe C. Thompson Sr. saw the potential in the idea, and the chain of ice houses quickly morphed into a chain of convenience stores, initially called “Tote’m Stores,” and later renamed 7-Eleven

6. Infamous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde are buried in different graveyards in Dallas. Their crime spree was immortalized in Arthur Penn’s Oscar-winning film Bonnie and Clyde, which shot some scenes in Dallas. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

7. Over the years, Texas has flown the flags of six different nations: Spain, Mexico, France, The Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and the United States.

8. The amusement park chain Six Flags was founded in Arlington in 1961, and is named for the six flags of Texas. It was originally called Six Flags Over Texas. 

9. There may be some truth to the saying "Everything's bigger in Texas." Texas is home to the world's largest Honky Tonk (where Merle Haggard once purchased the world's largest round of drinks), votive candle, giant pilgrim head, and, of course, the world's largest Texan.

Brandi Korti, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

10. March 27, 1984, may have been the strangest weather day in Texas history. In Amarillo, the temperature was a near-freezing 35 degrees with snow on the ground, while Brownsville hit a high of 106 degrees. 

11. Bracken Cave in San Antonio is home to the world’s largest bat colony. From March through September each year, millions of Mexican free-tailed bats inhabit the cave and 1458 acres of the surrounding Texas Hill Country.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

12. The 1836 Battle of The Alamo, during which hundreds of Texan defenders were killed (including folk hero Davy Crockett), was one of the most important battles of the Texas Revolution, convincing others to join the Texas army, and inspiring the battle cry “Remember the Alamo.” The battle later became the subject of songs, books, and films—and today, the Alamo is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Texas.

13. Electronics company Texas Instruments was founded in Dallas in 1951. Probably best known for consumer electronics like calculators, the company is one of the top 20 semiconductor producers in the world. The movie True Stories (1986), set in the fictional Virgil, Texas, and directed by David Byrne of the band Talking Heads, is loosely inspired by the tech empire established by Texas Instruments.

14. Aurora, Texas, is home to a rumored alien gravesite. Some locals believe that in the 1800s, a UFO crashed in the area, and locals buried the “petite” Martian under a tree in a nearby cemetery. 

15. Sometimes called “the birthplace of Texas ranching,” the 825,000-acre King Ranch in South Texas covers more land than the entire state of Rhode Island. Established in 1853, the ranch encompasses operations as diverse as farming, cattle ranching, tourism, and even publishing. 

16. Paris, Texas, has its own 65-foot-tall Eiffel Tower. Built in 1995, it was originally billed as the “Second Largest Eiffel Tower in the Second Largest Paris.” In the years since then, fake Eiffel Tower construction in the U.S. has bumped the Texas tower down to fourth place. Still, it’s probably the only imitation Eiffel Tower in the world that sports a jaunty red cowboy hat.

17. Frequently used as a statement of Texas pride, the expression “Don’t Mess With Texas” started out as an anti-littering slogan. The phrase, which appears on T-shirts and bumper stickers throughout the state, has been a federally registered trademark of the Texas Department of Transportation since 1985. 

18. Forget Mount Rushmore, Texas has its own giant stone head—a 13-ton boulder carved into the shape of John Wayne’s face. Unlike the presidential monument in South Dakota, the John Wayne Boulder in Lubbock, Texas, sits inside the library of Lubbock Christian University.

19. Over the years, musicians and songwriters have written numerous odes to the state of Texas. Glen Campbell wrote an ode to Galveston, George Strait sang of his exes in Texas, and Waylon Jennings had a number one Billboard hit with “Luckenbach, Texas” in 1977. But the state’s most well-known ode may have come from Hollywood cowboy and Texas native Gene Autry. In 1942, the singing cowboy appeared in the film Heart of the Rio Grande where he sang “Deep In The Heart of Texas.” Since then the iconic song has been referenced in everything from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure to The Big Bang Theory.

20. Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson were college roommates at the University of Texas at Austin. The future director and the future movie star met their sophomore year and became fast friends. “I wrote a term paper for Owen,” Anderson told Texas Monthly in 1998. “Although that wasn’t exactly a collaborative effort.” The two went on to actually collaborate on Bottle Rocket (1996), Anderson’s first feature film, and have worked together numerous times since then.

21. The deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States occurred in Galveston on September 8, 1900, when a Category 4 hurricane hit the island city. Though residents knew a storm was coming, forecasters downplayed its severity and few evacuated, and an estimated 6000 people died. 

22. Drawing on the etymology of its name, the state motto of Texas is “Friendship.”

23. Black’s BBQ in Lockhart is the oldest family-owned BBQ restaurant in Texas. Owned and operated by the Black family since 1932, the restaurant is best known for its 80-year-old sausage recipe. Other beloved long-running Texas BBQ joints include Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, which opened in 1949 and is known for its beef brisket, and Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse in Elgin, which started as a sausage company in 1949. (PSA: You can order their sausages from anywhere in the United States).

Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

24. Texas was once an independent nation. Called the Republic of Texas, it was its own country from 1836 through 1845, when it agreed to be part of the United States. During that time, Sam Houston (for whom Houston, Texas, is named) was elected president twice, in 1836 and 1841. 

25. Lyndon B. Johnson and Dwight D. Eisenhower were both born in Texas. (Though both held government positions in Texas, George Bush and George W. Bush were born in Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively.) The LBJ Presidential Library is located in Austin. 

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:


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